In classical Greek the word aoidos "singer" is an agent noun related to the verb aodein (ᾄδειν) ("To sing") and the noun aodé "song". The nouns and verb occur several times in the Iliad and Odyssey in relation to poetry:
In the world described in these poems writing is practically unknown (though its use is implied in one minor episode, the story of Bellerophontes); all poetry is "song", and poets are "singers". Later, in the fifth and fourth centuries, the performance of epic poetry was called rhapsodia, and its performer rhapsodos, but the word does not occur in the early epics or in contemporary lyric poetry, so it is unknown whether Hesiod and the poet(s) of the Iliad and Odyssey would have considered themselves rhapsodes (it has been argued by Walter Burkert, and is accepted by some recent scholars, that rhapsodos was by definition a performer of a fixed, written text and not a creative oral poet). It is not even known to what extent the makers of oral epic poetry were specialists. Phemius and Demodocus, in the Odyssey, are depicted performing non-epic as well as epic songs.
There was, however, certainly a profession of aoidos. Eumaeus, a character in the Odyssey, says that singers (aoidoi), healers, seers and craftsmen are likely to be welcomed as guests, while beggars are not; outside the world described by Homer, Hesiod gives a similar list in the form of a proverb on professional jealousy:
Potter hates potter and craftsman hates craftsman; Beggar is jealous of beggar, singer of singer.
- Hesiod, Works and Days 25-26.
According to the Iliad and Odyssey singers gained their inspiration from the Muses. Hesiod describes how the Muses visited him while he tended his sheep on Mount Helicon and granted him this inspiration, permitting him to sing of the future as well as the past. An anecdote in the Iliad about Thamyris shows that the Muses could take away what they had given. As in certain other cultures, blind men sometimes became singers: Demodocus in the Odyssey is blind, and the legendary creator of the Iliad and Odyssey, Homer, was often said to have been blind.
The audience for performances by aoidoi varied depending on the genre and circumstances (see list above). Women participated in, and sometimes led, laments, according to the Iliad. Many of the poems of Sappho are addressed to women and seem to assume an audience of women. For narrative (epic) poetry it is sometimes said that the audience was exclusively male; this is an exaggeration (for example, Penelope listens to, and interrupts, one performance depicted in the Odyssey) but it is probably largely true owing to the seclusion of women in early Greece.
It has been shown from comparative study of orality that the Iliad and Odyssey (as well as the works of Hesiod) come from a tradition of oral epics. In oral narrative traditions there is no exact transmission of texts; rather, stories are transmitted from one generation to another by bards, who make use of formulas to aid in remembering vast numbers of lines. These poets were bearers of the early Greek oral epic tradition, but little is known of them. Whenever the writing took place (dates between 750 and 600 BC are most often proposed), any contemporary poets and writers who may have known of it did not notice the event or name the poet(s). According to classical Greek sources, Homer lived long before the two poems were written down.